How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg became one of IndyCar’s crown jewels

The waterfront shots from the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg certainly don't hurt the race's popularity on the IndyCar circuit. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
The waterfront shots from the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg certainly don't hurt the race's popularity on the IndyCar circuit. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
Published March 9 2018
Updated March 9 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Ask drivers why they enjoy the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and they'll start with stories away from the track.

"It's walking around," four-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon said. "Going to these restaurants, they're all talking about the race. They're happy that it's here. Some of the venues are not like that."

And that, as much as anything, is why the Grand Prix has become a landmark event for North America's top open-wheel series.

Only three of IndyCar's 17 races have been around longer than the Grand Prix, which will run Sunday for the 14th consecutive year. Its TV audience trailed only the iconic Indianapolis 500 last season and is up 61 percent over the last four years. Race officials claimed record crowds in 2016-17, and drivers rank it alongside the series' other crown jewels — the Indy 500 and the Grand Prix of Long Beach — and compare it to Formula One's most famous event.

"This is our Monaco," IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan said.

To grasp how remarkable it is to go from start-up to series staple, you have to understand the risky nature of motorsports, where events like this come and go.

Cars whizzed past Baltimore's Camden Yards from 2011-13 before scheduling and sponsorship trouble caused its cancelation. IndyCar raced double-headers on Houston's streets from 2013-14 but hasn't returned. A Boston race scheduled in 2016 never even happened because of infighting between city and race officials.

St. Petersburg's Grand Prix has been filled with roadblocks, too, dating to 1990. The first three iterations featured a federal lawsuit over the noise, a promoter going broke, sponsorship problems and a sanctioning body filing for bankruptcy. None lasted longer than six years.

The fourth, finally, took off. Although TV ratings peaked in 2011, last year's race drew almost 1.2 million viewers. That's triple the audience from 2005.

The race doesn't release official attendance figures but said attendance jumped 24 percent from 2013-17. Crowd estimates for the three-day weekend have more than doubled since 2005.

Palm trees and the downtown St. Petersburg skyline make a nice backdrop to the Grand Prix winners circle. (Times file, 2017)

Can't beat the scenery

Participants and organizers cite many reasons for the Grand Prix's success, starting with its location.

Downtown provides beautiful waterfront shots for ABC's national telecast, which city officials consider a three-hour commercial for St. Petersburg. Drivers appreciate the well-maintained streets and ample passing opportunities along the 1.8-mile, 14-turn course that create compelling racing.

"We always have a lot of fun," 2008 Grand Prix winner Graham Rahal said. "How can you not when you're going to race downtown, right on the water?"

Especially considering the warm weather, which Midwest-based teams and fans are eager to experience after a winter up north (it snowed Wednesday in Indianapolis). Those out-of-town visitors help make an estimated economic impact of $48 million, according to a 2015 city study.

Drivers and city officials also credit the Grand Prix's growth to race owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, two motorsports veterans who also run events in Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Portland. The fact that the race has been the series opener for eight years in a row boosts its prominence, too.

All of those positives have helped the Grand Prix navigate potholes that derailed similar events elsewhere.

In 2013, Honda surprised organizers by ending its title sponsorship after nine seasons. The race was already well established by then, so Firestone signed on a month later and will be the top sponsor for at least two more years.

"When we came on board at the time, we had something that was proven," said Lisa Boggs, the director of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. "Since then in the last five years, it's just gotten better and better and better."

IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan feels the love from fans during last year’s Grand Prix. The community has rallied around the race in recent years. (Dirk Shadd, Times)

An established community event 

Some of that improvement traces back to another potential problem the Grand Prix faced in 2015: The city council wasn't happy. Although it eventually extended the race through 2020, members questioned whether the city was getting the best deal it could. One even suggested that St. Petersburg had outgrown the event.

"Whenever you have a strong partnership as we have with the city, when those kinds of things come up, you listen," Savoree said.

His company quickly went from listening to acting.

Businesses near the track wanted the Grand Prix's concrete barriers and fences to be built later and taken down sooner; the race trimmed a week off its construction time this year.

The Dali Museum and Mahaffey Theater wanted established schedules to help plan other events around the Grand Prix; on Thursday, the race announced its dates for 2019 (March 8-10) and 2020 (March 13-15).

"The relationship between the Grand Prix and The Dali Museum has evolved into a wonderful partnership," said Beth Bell, the museum's marketing director.

The Grand Prix tried to evolve its partnership with the rest of the city by expanding its offerings. It holds a 5K race on the track and a movie screening (Cars 3) Friday night at North Straub Park. It began giving race gear and free tickets to downtown businesses.

"The biggest difference to me is the relationship between the race and the community," Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

Kriseman knows that directly. When he was a city councilman in 2005, he heard complaints in "big numbers" from neighbors unhappy about the noise or stores who said it was killing their business. Now?

"Those have really gone away," Kriseman said.

They've gone away because the race is no longer a novelty. It's part of the community.

Residents and businesses know it's coming, and they've learned how to plan for it. Courigan's Irish Pub next to the track accepts a little less foot traffic before the event in exchange for an influx of patrons over the weekend. Sundial welcomes fans with checkered flag pennants hanging from shops.

"They embrace the race and find a way to fit it into their business plan and capitalize on that," said the Rev. Canon Katie Churchwell, a priest at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and the president of the Downtown Business Association.

IndyCar drivers notice all of that. Dixon heard grumblings about road closures during the failed venture in Baltimore. That doesn't happen here.

Instead, drivers feel supported. Three-time Grand Prix winner Helio Castroneves remembers a cab ride a few years ago when the driver said he loves race weekend because business booms.

"People not involved in the race embrace it," said Castroneves, this year's grand marshal. "That's what you notice. That's why we enjoy it."

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Friday-Sunday, downtown streets. Race is 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $20 (Friday and Saturday general admission, ages 12 and under) to $135 (all three days, adult, upper rows). Paddock passes extra. See gpstpete.com or call 1-877-725-8849.

TV: ABC

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